I am, at heart, a city girl. Don’t get me wrong, I know my way around a cow and can hoe a field as much as the next girl but cities are where I really come alive. And for me, there is no city like Helsinki. Yes, there are more glamorous cities, and some may argue that Helsinki is too provincial to be a city at all. But my love affair with Helsinki started when I was just a little girl growing up in Espoo, dreaming about life in the “big city”. Growing up in Espoo is kind of like living somewhere down the Hudson line in New York State; you’re close enough that you know full well that everything really cool happens in the city.
For me, Helsinki will always be a city of possibilities. It is ever-changing while also preserving the things that make it unique. Just like a good city ought. The downtown area is still littered with cobblestones that have tram tracks fitted in between them. Blocks with buildings dating back to the era of Swedish rule right next to Soviet era monstrosities or nestled next to ultramodern buildings from the 21st century. All of them flanked on all sides by the sea or nature of other description. Which is one of the things that I love about Helsinki. No matter where you go within its borders you are never far from a park. Whether that be the need and tended warns of Esplanad Park, the near natural state swampyness of Lammassaari, or something in between, in the form of the many allotment gardens around the city, or even one of the city’s beautiful cemeteries.
While the people who designed the grid of Helsinki should have used several lessons in logistics and formal logic, the grid they laid out means that you can never escape the wind. There are some places where it’s worse, the bridge connecting the two sides of Pasila and the shore come to mind, the closeness of the sea and the straight lines that wherever you go it will be windy. In the winter this poses a great excuse to pop in to a café for hot chocolate or coffee – something that Finns as a nation seem to do more than anyone. In the summer the wind is a constant companion, a guarantee that you will never boil as you may in other cities.
Beyond the surface there is a solemn kind of quirkiness to Helsinki that other cities lack, in my opinion at least. Whether that be in the form of Linnanmäki, an amusement park in the heart of the city, or the concrete roadblocks shaped like turtles, hippos, or best of all, jaunty pigs painted in a riot of colors. The Finnish word for concrete roadblocks being betonipossu, or concrete pig. This is a serious city that tries very hard not to take itself too seriously.
There are a lot of people do not like Helsinki, many of them for good reasons. But for me it is home, much more so than any other place has ever been, or is likely to ever be. Large to be interesting, and yet small enough to ever feel too crowded. It is, in a word, perfect. Or as close to it as anything real has a right to be.